By BEN STOCKING – 14 May 2008
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The arrests of two Vietnamese reporters for their coverage of a bribery, gambling and corruption scandal have led to a highly unusual confrontation between Vietnam’s Communist government and the country’s state-controlled newspapers.
“Honest journalists must be freed,” blared a bold headline in Wednesday’s Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper, where one of the reporters worked until he was jailed Monday.
Vietnamese newspapers are generally deferential to the government, which controls all of the nation’s media. But this week’s arrests unleashed a torrent of protests from journalists and bloggers, who said the detentions would discourage aggressive reporting on corruption, one of Vietnam’s most urgent problems.
Sparking their outrage were the arrests Monday of Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
Authorities also arrested one police investigator and interrogated another who were accused of providing false information to the journalists.
The reporters are accused of “abuse of authority” for allegedly inaccurate reporting on a major corruption scandal that led to the resignation of the transportation minister in 2006.
Tuoi Tre published a story Wednesday saying it was inundated by phone calls, e-mails and letters from angry citizens protesting the government’s move — the most it had received in 33 years of publication.
The scandal, which erupted in 2005, led to the conviction of nine people, including several government officials. They were found guilty of illegally betting millions of dollars on European football matches and trying to bribe people to cover up their crime.
Authorities suspected they embezzled the money from a unit of the ministry that managed major road and bridge building projects. The unit received substantial funding from the World Bank and Japan.
Government officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Authorities have not disclosed the specifics of the charges against the two journalists, or specified which aspects of their aggressive reporting were allegedly inaccurate.
In its report Wednesday, Tuoi Tre quoted a Hanoi attorney who said this week’s arrests had raised concerns that “journalists and newspapers will be less aggressive in their reporting of negative cases.”
Writers across Vietnam’s exploding blogosphere also condemned the arrests.
“There is no worse tragedy for a country than if nobody dares to speak out,” wrote journalist and blogger Vo Thi Hao. “What happened to freedom of the press?”